The Sri Lankan navy vessel docked late one afternoon in Batticaloa. A group of 41 men, women and children disembarked, flanked by navy personnel. From the shore they were ordered into vans and driven through the night to Galle on the southern coast.
They continued to a navy camp, where they were held for a while before being driven on to a school hall, arriving around 9pm on 6 July. Inside, close to 100 officials from the criminal investigation wing of the Sri Lankan police force were already waiting, alerted in advance that a boatload of asylum seekers had been delivered back from Australia.
The police then separated the 37 Sinhalese from the four Tamils. The group found themselves surrounded in the hall. One man, a Tamil from the north-east of Sri Lanka who called himself Nelson, took a blow to the face from one of the officials, and blood started to run from the left side of his mouth. Two police officers were shouting at him from either side. “The officers were being rotated,” he recalls, and the same question was barked again and again: “Did you pay LTTE?” “Do you know LTTE?” He repeatedly denied it, and was kicked in the leg.
Another man was slapped and hit with a water bottle. The Tamils were then taken to the bathroom and ordered to sit in a line. After five minutes another official arrived and told them to return to the hall.
Nearly a month before, on 12 June, the group of 41 had boarded a small fishing boat and set off from the Sri Lankan coast for New Zealand, as the Guardian revealed on 23 June. They carried with them a tattered New Zealand flag – proof of their final destination. The plan had almost come to fruition, but after nine days at sea the boat experienced problems and they radioed the New Zealand coastguard.
The man on the end of the line took their coordinates, a small dot on a vast expanse of ocean somewhere east of Christmas Island. They were too far away to help, he said; instead he would contact the Australian guard. The boat then switched tack, knowing that an interception by Australia would mean they would be sent back to Sri Lanka. A while later three planes flew overhead, and eventually a ship marked SOS Marine came into view.
Back in the school hall the police continued the barrage of questions. Nelson was forced to give up the address of his home in a small village on the north-eastern side of Sri Lanka. His wife recalls the moment that same day when two policemen turned up at the house, sent there by the men questioning Nelson down in Galle. She and her 14-year-old son were at home. The two men entered the front door and began asking where her husband was. One of the men then feigned a punch at her son. “They asked where my father is and I said I didn’t know,” the boy recalls.
Nelson was released on 9 July, three days after coming to shore, and returned to his village. His account of life in the years leading up to his attempted escape is echoed by Tamils across the island state. In 2009 the government launched a final, brutal assault on the the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the north-east, not far from Nelson’s home. Tens of thousands of civilians were kettled into so-called “no-fire zones”.
After promising civilians sanctuary, the Sri Lankan air force rained bombs down on them. Although the guns fell silent in 2009, the government maintains a suffocating pressure on many Tamils.
Nelson and the three others on the boat say that long after the war they continued to be harassed and intimidated on account of their ethnicity, for every Tamil in Sri Lanka is suspected of being a sympathiser. Things have worsened still since he returned to his home. “I feel scared. They ride past every day on bicycles but don’t say anything. I’m scared to talk with police.”
The Sinhalese aboard the boat haven’t fared any better. Sujeewa Saparamadu’s husband remains in jail, accused of masterminding the plan. She met with the Guardian in the ruins of a disused house in a village three hours drive from Colombo.
A mother of three, she and her husband were owners of a successful company that sold forklift trucks, and their children attended international school. But she was a vocal critic of the government, and relatives of hers had been supporters of the armed opposition People’s Liberation Front.
Three of her brothers attempted to flee to Australia in late 2012, but were deported back and have since disappeared. In an interview with Australian television in December 2012 she rounded on an increasingly repressive Sri Lankan government; after that, “everything got worse.”
On two occasions last year, one of her teenage sons was kidnapped and held for ransom. Sujeewa, her husband and children first attempted to flee in June 2013, travelling to the north coast and hiding in a thicket of jungle one night until the beach was clear and they could board a vessel anchored off the shore. A group of soldiers saw them and opened fire. They were brought back to shore, where Sujeewa was dragged into the jungle by seven soldiers and assaulted.
Sujeewa recalls the moment she realised her second attempt to flee would fail. Officials from the SOS Marine ship boarded their boat, searched for weapons and took their details, refusing their pleas to be taken to Indonesia or placed in the care of the UN.
The group was held on the boat for several days, but heavy winds whipped up the ocean and officials wanted them transferred. She and her children were moved to one small boat, and then to a second. The waves were high and the two boats lurched back and forth as she tried to get her children from one to the other. They were then passed to the Australian customs and border patrol and held for nine days before beginning the journey back to Sri Lanka.
Sujeewa says that around half those on board were poor, meaning the remainder had paid above the odds for the cost of the boat. Australia’s policy towards “boat people” hinges on the argument that every asylum seeker is an economic migrant – a claim countered by the background of Sujeewa and her husband, wealthy and with substantial business interests in Japan.
Emily Howie, from the Human Rights Law Centre in Melbourne, says the branding of “economic migrants” continues despite evidence that the vast majority of those arriving in Australia on boats are genuine refugees.
“This means that Australia subjects Sri Lankans who arrive by boat to ‘enhanced screening’, a truncated assessment process in which detainees have no access to a lawyer and no independent review of the decision.”
That was the experience of the 41 asylum seekers. Their fate was decided on the high seas by officials hundreds of miles away on the Australian mainland who spoke with them via telephone for 30 minutes. Howie describes it as “a flimsy short-cut process that is woefully inadequate to ensure that Australia does not return Sri Lankans to ill treatment or torture.”
Canberra has already deported more than 1,000 people to Sri Lanka, and is again under the spotlight after a boatload of 157 Tamils that had been intercepted and held at sea for nearly a month was brought to shore last week.
After harrowing reports of their treatment at sea by Australian officials, they were sent to a detention centre in Nauru, and the Australian government will decide whether to hold them there indefinitely or deport them back to Sri Lanka.
The UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, spoke in March of her concern at Australia’s asylum policy. Howie said the fact that Pillay “raised Australia in a statement that also addressed human rights crises in Ukraine, Syria, North Korea and Sri Lanka shows the level of seriousness with which these issues are perceived globally”.
For Sujeewa, the harassment continues. She didn’t return to her house after her meeting with the Guardian, and later neighbours told her that police had arrived asking what she had told “that foreigner”.
Similar events occurred over the following days: plain-clothed men would follow her to the bus stop and stand next to her in the queue, leaving only when she boarded the bus – a common tactic in Sri Lanka, where the intelligence apparatus is geared more towards intimidation than surveillance.
For her and others aboard the boat, the end of the war, celebrated so rapturously by the government, has brought little improvement to their lives – rather, the victory over the LTTE has been used by the government to project a veneer of stability to other countries, Australia included. Sujeewa believes this is false: “What you see on the television screen about Sri Lanka, that it’s beautiful and developing, isn’t what it’s like – it’s got a very dark inside.”
If Australia does deport the 157 Tamils now on Nauru, they will automatically be arrested upon return. That is always the first punishment – the Sri Lankan government appears to see the decision to leave illegally as evidence of their guilt of a past crime. Thus the cycle will continue interminably – criminalised by Sri Lanka for fleeing, and then again by Australia for seeking refuge.